By Sarah Tolar
In 1986, an unknown 15-year-old, named Lea Loveless, broke onto the national scene, qualifying for her first final at the US Nationals. Fourteen years later, in 2000, she climbed back into the water to participate in her fourth Olympic Trials. Somewhere in the middle, she won two Olympic medals, set and reset the American record in the 100 meter backstroke, and earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Stanford University.
Now known as Lea Maurer, she is a proud wife and mother. She has taken her love for the sport of swimming and channeled her athletic ability into coaching success. Last year she led the Lake Forest High School boys’ swim team to its first national championship.
Read on as Lea talks to SwimInfo.com about how being a coach has given her a new perspective on being a swimmer, and how being a mother may one day give her a new perspective on morning workouts.
SwimInfo: You have participated in four different Olympic Trials. Describe how your experiences have changed as you got older and gained more personal experience?
Lea Maurer: Unfortunately, my performances at Trials became less successful over the years. At my first Trials in 1988, I was a junior in high school. It was interesting for me because Rick Carey, who was on my club team, was a contender for the Olympic team that year. He had made the 1980 team but the US boycotted, and then he won at Trials in 1984 and he was continuing on to try and make the team in ’88. He ended up missing the team, but I made finals in both my events, which was exciting. It was really just a positive thing because I had no expectations of making the team; I just wanted to swim well. So I was happy with how I did, but I was also witnessing what Rick went through as an older swimmer. This was his last meet and the last time he was going to see the people who had been such a big part of his life. So I think even in ’88, I had this perspective of how Olympic Trials were the changing of the guard and the turnover and transition into life. I remember feeling bad for him, but still being excited about what happened with me.
SwimInfo: And what do you recall of the 1992 and ’96 Trials?
Lea Maurer: I think the best part of ’92 was that I was a dark horse. I was probably somebody that people thought could make the team but probably wouldn’t. I had a huge college team there, so it was much more of a team event, and there were so many people swimming that I got lost in the team part of it. It ended up being a really successful meet for me and I was able to make the team in the 100 and 200 backstrokes.
In ’96 I went back to Stanford and still had that team, but I felt like there was an extraordinary amount of pressure on me. I felt like people thought that because I was the American record-holder, I should make the team and do better than I did in Barcelona, where I finished with a third and fourth place. I think that I had a lot more programmed expectations of “I have to do this” as well as feeling the burden of “this is my last meet and, oh my God, what am I going to do.”
SwimInfo: Okay. Now what about 2000?
Lea Maurer: In 2000, I think it was different because I had a little more perspective. I had already gone through what it was like to miss making the team, and I saw that life was fine after not making it. I think that in 2000, with Eric, my coach, training me, and working and having all of these students and athletes who were there looking for me to perform, that’s probably one thing that I got lost in. I didn’t want to disappoint people in the sense that if I went to the Olympics I had to do very well because it wasn’t like they were even saying, “oh, I hope you make it.” They really were like the broader American public. They look for gold medals- you know, if we go we have to win.
Each meet was a completely different experience from my perspective.
SwimInfo: You coach a high school swim team. Watching them, have they given you a different perspective compared with your perspectives as a competitor?
Lea Maurer: I think the big thing with coaching high school is that in 1998 I was probably the most successful because I was training with them more, and when I went to Worlds I had to practice what I preach. You’re trying to tell these kids that you just have to give it your best shot and regardless of what the outcome is, it’s worthwhile. So I think on the coattails of ’96, I was coming back and I had to walk them through how is it that you approach swimming and how I’m going to approach it. That was really positive for me in terms of feeling like I had to practice what I preach, in terms of “this is how I have to handle bad workouts.”
SwimInfo: What was their reaction when you won at Worlds and set an American record?
Lea Maurer: I think that when I went in to Worlds in ’98 and broke the American record and won, there was a sense that I lost a little bit of the process with them, where they were just like “oh, you’re going to win.” I think the fortunate part of that was that they were really excited about how I was going to do and meeting all these big-name people. In contrast, at the 2000 Trials, I decided that even though I didn’t have success, how I handled it was going to be a lesson for them. It was really helpful for me to say, “listen, this is not tragic, it’s just inconvenient.” In a lot of ways they helped me kind of maintain perspective, but in other ways I felt like I didn’t want to disappoint them. But even when I did disappoint them, it still came out to be good because I could still teach them that really, I’m glad I did it. A lot of them would ask me “do you wish you didn’t try?” The answer is no, I still think it’s an awesome meet and I think the way it’s set up is awesome, and I have incredible respect for all the athletes competing at Trials. It’s hard because you see people maybe once or twice a year for so long and then probably won’t run into them again. So I think they thought of swimming for me as a huge social part of my life.
SwimInfo: How would you say that Olympic Trials are different than any other meet, and how do you mentally prepare for that type of meet?
I think that there is that programmed expectation that you usually don’t have with sports such as swimming. Here the focus is almost entirely on what place you get. So much of the process is lost. I think the thing that I love about swimming is the individualized approach- you’re just trying to do new things or a new time or try a new race. So there’s usually a lot of different opportunities, for example, even if you didn’t go a best time, there are other elements that you could use to assess your race saying, “this was good or this was bad.” When you go to Olympic Trials, there are so many more people who are just looking at making the team. So regardless of whether or not you have a good race, its harder to really take that and celebrate it because one, you want to make the team, or two, you don’t have another race to apply it to.
So that’s the thing about Olympic Trials. I love that with swimming: Every six months you have this goal that you’re working towards, and even if it’s disappointing you kind of start again the next day and improve upon it. But if you didn’t do something and you walk away and say “I wish I did this” or “I coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’” but there’s no opportunity to remedy that. I think, as an athlete, that’s really frustrating because we’re so used improvement. Then all of the a sudden, it’s the end of your career and there’s the sense that there’s no next step, which we’re so used to.
SwimInfo: In ’92, when you made the team, people really thought that you were a favorite. But what went through your mind when you touched the wall and you realized that you had made the team?
Lea Maurer: I was still really nervous. I think when I look back at the tape, I realized that Janie [Wagstaff] and I had won, and I was ecstatic and relieved. But Trials were in March at that time, so you had a few months to get ready for the Olympics. I think then it was like “all right, I’m there; now how do I make sure I do well?”
All of the Americans always feel like making the team is one step and then there’s a lot of pressure to make sure that you do well when you get there, to kind of quiet all of the critics and all of that. I had really strong races but in the 100, I kind of faded at the end, and that’s a scary last 15 meters when you’re fading. I think I kind of had those same thoughts of “I made it, that’s awesome, but now I have some work to do before I go and perform at the international level.”
SwimInfo: With all of your success, and you had kind of developed a life outside of swimming, what went into your decision to keep training and compete in 2000?
Lea Maurer: I think it was really the sense that I missed racing and I missed all of the people. For me, I feel like it was back to basics. I had gotten heavy, I wasn’t doing much and it was hard for me to do a stair-master and that kind of thing. So I really got back into swimming just for fitness and kind of to see people who had been a big part of my life for 15 years. I also think I had gotten away from what I loved about swimming. I wanted to have a meet more on my terms, where I was calm, had fun meeting people, had fun racing and enjoyed getting nervous rather than feeling tense on the blocks. I wanted to remind myself, especially with my experiences coaching, you talk about all these things and say ‘this is how it should be done’ and you feel like ‘I wish I could kind of practice that one more time.’
Do you have a favorite Trials experience?
Lea Maurer: My favorite experience was in ’92 when Jenny Thompson broke the world record in the 100 free. We were weight-training partners and I think it was the first event of the meet that time. She was ecstatic and I remember being really excited and feeling like we had done the same thing so we both were going to do well. But I remember that swim vividly and it was really inspiring and it kind of got me excited about the meet.
Now that you have a son, what are your thoughts about him one day becoming a swimmer?
Lea Maurer: The morning workout thing… if we could do away with that… Um, I love swimming and I feel like it’s one of the best exercises you can do. I want him to know how to swim and I want him to be safe in the ocean and know all of the strokes and stuff like that. But I just feel like he has to pick a sport, and if he is a swimmer, especially as a coach now, I have to really push myself not to be so invested in times that he does and not becoming one of those dreaded ‘swim parents’. I’d love it if he chooses it, but I’m not going to put him on the fast track to swimming.